"The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity" by Roger E. Olson

Douglas D. Webster
Wednesday, May 30th 2007
May/Jun 2003

Baylor University professor of theology Roger Olson succeeds in providing "a very basic, relatively comprehensive, nontechnical, nonspeculative one-volume introduction to Christian belief." Anyone who is looking for a defense of his or her own particular theological tradition or narrow slice of Christian thinking will be dissatisfied with Olson's "mediating theological perspective." But those who are looking for an even-handed, highly accessible, thoughtful survey of the main contours of Christian belief will be well-served. Olson seeks to avoid the pitfalls of oversimplification and speculation in his offering of an evangelical and irenic presentation of "the Great Tradition of Christian teaching and belief." He proposes a "both-and" approach to theology that respects the common bond between Christians of various denominations and traditions, while at the same time respecting their differences. He underscores this theme of unity and diversity with his image of a mosaic that "melds multiformity and rich diversity of colors with harmony and complexity into a pattern that conveys a unified image without sacrificing variety."

Olson's "both-and" approach does not necessarily involve an "anything goes" theology. He does not settle for a bland middle-of-the-road approach to theology that dilutes the truth in order to appeal to a broader spectrum of Christians. Nor does he envision a grand synthesis of Christian truth. He repeatedly warns against the growing phenomenon of Christian folk religion as well as modern-day Gnostic versions of "esoteric Christianity." His concern is "to identify a core of essential Christian beliefs that all mature, capable Christians must affirm in order to be considered truly Christian." Olson is confident that the central dogmas and doctrines of the Christian belief are clearly evident in the Bible and affirmed in the great tradition of the Christian Church. It is these beliefs that he seeks to uphold without "flights of speculative fancy," "subtle scholarly disputes," and "either-or thinking." Instead of focusing on "boundary identification" and those secondary beliefs and opinions that divide Christians, Olson chooses to define orthodoxy by its center, those core beliefs and dogmas that make up the gospel of Jesus Christ.

After laying the foundation for what unites Christians through the centuries and across denominations, Olson takes up fourteen key theological issues with an emphasis on the comprehensive meaning of Christian belief. He explores each doctrine in the light of classical orthodoxy, relying on the early church fathers, the confessions, and the reformers to make his case for consensus and unity. Olson has a gift for clear prose, logical thinking, and an ability to get to the heart of his subject quickly. He begins with a concise description of the Christian consensus on a particular belief, which is followed by its heretical alternatives. Then he offers a brief description of the range of interpretations within Christianity and concludes with a unitive Christian view. He regularly reminds the reader that there is much more to a particular doctrine than he has time and space to explore in his concise descriptions.

Olson proposes the possibility of a both-and theological tension in many cases of doctrinal divisions and controversies. "Could it be," he writes, "that God is both self-limiting (in order to allow creatures room for some self-determination) and sovereign? Could it be that salvation is completely of grace alone even though humans are genuinely free and must decide freely (apart from any determination) for or against it?" Olson is up front with his Arminian perspective ("believing in human persons' God-given free will") and true to his intent of treating "Reformed theology (Calvinism) and all other branches of authentic Christian theology with respect and in a spirit of love."

In a book that is intentionally irenic, Olson's personal frustration comes through when he writes, "Aggressive, dogmatic Reformed Protestants often go out of their way to insult Arminian Protestants who believe in libertarian free will and who emphasize decision by calling them Semi-Pelagians and arguing that their synergistic belief in salvation is involving cooperation of the human will with divine grace is covertly Roman Catholic." He goes on to acknowledge that "some Arminian Protestants return the favor by treating Reformed theology (Calvinism) as near-heresy if not outright heresy." Olson sees "open theism" as a viable Christian vision of God's providence, along with "meticulous providence" and "limited providence." He does not consider "open theism" a heresy, as some do who are committed to "meticulous providence," because it "retains the essentials of a Christian view of divine sovereignty" and has "no hint of process theology's denial of divine sovereignty and power."

It is understandable that Olson feels freer to take issue with his own evangelical tradition than with other Christian traditions. He is critical of some Protestant groups for having "overreacted to the perceived threat of modernism by developing a doctrine of strict biblical inerrancy," but he is quiet about papal infallibility. He exposes those who have "become obsessed with detailed speculation about the end times and an overly literalistic interpretation of biblical apocalyptic literature," but extends considerable latitude to those who venerate the saints and believe in purgatory. At times his criticism raises questions about how he would analyze the weaknesses of another Christian tradition if he were writing from within that tradition. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church "officially considers belief in the existence of a true, invisible, universal church that is not institutionally under the authority of the magisterium (bishops, cardinals, pope) a heresy," is not as grave a concern for Olson as "the 'baptizing' of denominationalism as normative and especially in the identification of a particular denomination with the church universal itself."

When he encourages the reader not to slam his book shut because he mentions the term orthodoxy it can be assumed that Olson is writing for a broader readership than just the evangelical community. His aim is to take down the barriers generated through speculation and to remove the divisions caused by overemphasizing a particular aspect of the truth at the expense of the whole truth. On the one hand, Olson challenges those whose theology is too opinionated and polemical and, on the other, seeks to provide "a stepping stone out of the swamp of folk religion and onto a more intellectually rigorous path to truth." Defined in these terms, Olson's book is a success.

Wednesday, May 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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